A repeat of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August is likely to continue for some time. An interactive dynamic is unfolding between Beijing, Washington and Taipei — each with its own interpretation of what is happening and its own interpretation of what it is forced to do in response. Beijing launched an unprecedented series of military exercises around the island, asserting that Washington and Taipei had breached a red line in violation of earlier understandings of the “one China” framework. Washington views China’s moves as an excessive and destabilizing overreaction to Pelosi’s trip, and has vowed to maintain its own military presence in the Taiwan Strait to prevent any real use of force by China. Indeed, two US Navy guided-missile cruisers crossed the strait on August 28; And the Biden administration is preparing to announce $1 billion in new arms sales to Taiwan. Taipei has announced that it will increase its defense spending to increase the island’s preparedness for any possible Chinese attack. All of this reflects and reinforces the trilateral tendency to view the cross-strait conflict as a military problem, perhaps making it already difficult to pursue a diplomatic path to de-escalation.
However, the arrangement in the cross-strait war games distracts from the complex word games that all three parties play to justify their positions and actions. The leading narrative now is that Beijing has established a “new status quo” or “new normal” by regularizing an enhanced military posture around Taiwan, as well as increased presence and patrols in the East and South China Seas (also, in Beijing’s view, in response to challenges to sovereignty claims by other countries). . But it omits and/or obscures the changes in position disputed by Washington and Taipei. China policy experts often recall that in 2004, then-Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly asserted in congressional testimony that the United States “does not support unilateral moves. [regarding Taiwan] It will change the state as we define it. Kelly, however, did not define it; Nor are recent US officials who now regularly reiterate Washington’s opposition to any “unilateral changes in status”. In any case, the status quo is now clearly one in which the Speaker of the House can visit Taiwan as a matter of routine because it is “consistent with our One China Policy”—despite reports that the Biden administration found Pelosi’s visit inappropriate and did so. Don’t let that happen.
Taipei has also declined to clarify its definition of the status quo, but under President Tsai Ing-wen it has increasingly backed away from the “one China” framework, notably by refusing to renegotiate an earlier historic “agreement of non-disagreement” with Beijing. “One China” means (the so-called “1992 Consensus”). For its part, Beijing essentially defines the status quo in terms of its “one China principle”: that there is only one China, Taiwan is part of it, and Beijing is its sole legitimate government and international representative. The bottom line is that talking about “status” on the Taiwan Strait is meaningless without recognizing and acknowledging that there is no mutual agreement between the parties concerned on how to define or characterize it. Moreover, the situation on the Taiwan Strait was never stable. The three parties are “slicing up” what the “One China” framework includes and allows.
Another serious word game centers on the difference between Beijing’s “One China Principle” and Washington’s “One China Policy”. Much commentary in recent weeks has slammed Beijing’s persistent claim that the United States has long subscribed to the “one China principle,” even though Washington only “accepts” the clause that “Taiwan is part of China” without accepting or endorsing it. The distinction has a complicated and mysterious history, with Washington essentially viewing Taiwan as part of China until the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, after which it adopted the position that Taiwan’s legal status was “uncertain”. A position that has since been frequently debated and sometimes rhetorically violated by US officials. That murky history aside, the important thing today is to highlight the differences—albeit valid—between Beijing’s “One China Principle” and Washington’s “One China Policy,” distracting from the latter’s decline in substance and credibility. In fact, as noted in the Three Communiqués between the United States and the China and Taiwan Relations Act, increased and ongoing reforms in US-Taiwan interaction over the past thirty years have pushed the limits of “unofficial” relations. Because of this, Washington real “One China, One Taiwan” policy, which would arguably violate the Communiqué. Beijing certainly thinks so. More importantly, some in Washington – including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and several members of Congress – have publicly or otherwise supported it, calling for the abandonment of the “one China” policy and recognition of Taiwan as an independent country. Pelosi’s visit has given them a boost and an opportunity to press the case.
Moreover, Pelosi’s trip has been declared a violation of or not to change Washington’s “one China policy” because Beijing sees that policy as “hollow”. If the Biden administration, despite its opposition to the Pelosi trip, could still adopt a stance that was acceptable under US policy—just as the Clinton administration reversed its earlier position in 1995 to allow then-Taiwanese President Li Teng-hui to visit the United States (provoking the “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis”)—what limits does Beijing want to understand? Presumably, there are limits on the higher-level interactions that can be specified. But it is not clear whether the Biden administration is politically or diplomatically prepared to complement the military sanctions against China on the Taiwan Strait by diplomatically reassuring Beijing that US-Taiwan relations still have clear boundaries.
Instead, the wordplay also includes assertions—some US officials have said—that Beijing overreacted to the Pelosi trip, using it as an “excuse” to carry out earlier plans to hold unprecedented military exercises around Taiwan. But any such Chinese plans could be hinted at by initial reports in April that Pelosi had planned to visit Taiwan and postponed it after testing positive for Covid-19. In any case, Beijing had little to gain from sabers dramatically unprovoked in Taiwan – especially given the risk of an international crisis within weeks of Xi’s bid for a “third term” and supremacy. Agenda for the Twentieth Chinese Communist Party Congress, now scheduled for mid-October. This “excuse” argument is likely to deny the significance of Pelosi’s trip and the relevance of the debate over whether it should have happened in Washington.
There has also been a meaningful debate over whether Pelosi’s trip has created a new Taiwan Strait “crisis.” Some political scientists are reluctant to declare it a crisis because the likelihood of actual military conflict is low. The Biden administration likely doesn’t want to characterize the situation as a crisis because Beijing is looking to demonstrate alarm that could lead to a rethinking of US policies. But it’s hard to deny that the situation has hardened on all sides since Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and that US-China tensions and accusations are likely to escalate rather than quickly resolve—especially if all sides continue to focus on a military response to the situation. We are facing a major and potentially dangerous turning point in US-China relations. To resist acknowledging this and/or to argue that the situation does not constitute a “crisis” appears to be aimed at ignoring any US responsibility to either precipitate the situation or take steps to defuse it. But the longer the current dynamic persists without both Washington and Beijing striving for greater mutual understanding on how the Taiwan issue will be managed, the more likely it is that a serious, uncontested crisis will develop.
Beijing, of course, bears considerable responsibility for fueling the current crisis. It continues to promulgate its own self-serving narrative of “who started it” and similarly self-serving “status quo.” Instead of offering positive incentives and proposals to address cross-Strait differences, it relies almost exclusively on coercive levers to deal with Taipei.
But Washington and Taipei cannot blame Beijing alone for the situation that arose in the wake of Pelosi’s trip. It won’t be that easy, because an inconvenient truth is that the “One China Policy” is actually a result of the actions and statements of Washington and Taipei in recent years. We cannot pretend that the Three Communiqués are no longer relevant or operative – or, if they are, that Beijing is solely responsible for them. However valiant and admirable Taiwan’s democratization may be, it cannot pretend that it has invalidated the “One China” framework and abandoned communications. Recent history does not erase history; And explanations of Beijing’s power, leverage and communications cannot be air-brushed. Taiwan is still stuck in a historical trap created four decades ago by Washington and Beijing (with the help of Chiang Kai-shek). This is unfortunate and unfair to the Taiwanese people, especially in the past. But they are situations that must be faced somehow rather than denied or avoided. Pelosi’s visit exposed an underlying dilemma in U.S. policy toward Taiwan and brought it uncomfortably to the front burner.
Paul Heer is a distinguished fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. From 2007 to 2015, he served as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia. He is a writer. Mr. X and the Pacific: George F. Kenan and American Policy in East Asia (Cornell University Press, 2018).